Strength in Numbers; Grassroots Activists Prepare for First In-Person Conference Since 2019

When DeJonaé Shaw traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2019, to fight for passage of a workplace safety bill along with hundreds of her fellow USW Rapid Response activists, she never thought it would be four years before they would be back together on Capitol Hill.

“The work that we all do collectively is so important, to make sure lawmakers listen to working people,” Shaw said. “Attending lobby days in D.C. and in our states is a constant reminder that there is strength in numbers.”

Making Voices Heard

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, USW members haven’t been able to show that collective strength in person in Washington since 2019, when Shaw and others held rallies and visited lawmakers to call on them to pass the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act.

That effort, led by the USW’s Rapid Response team, was a success in the U.S. House, where the violence-prevention bill passed that fall with bipartisan support before failing to make it through a divided Senate.

Still, for Shaw, a nurse and a member of Local 7600 at Kaiser Permanente in California who also serves as a legislative coordinator for her 7,500-member local, it was important for USW members, especially health care workers, to make their voices heard.

“The issues facing our workplaces and our communities are too dire to sit on the sidelines,” she said. “We have an opportunity to talk to members of Congress from other states and to make sure they understand our perspective and the work that we do.”

Upcoming Conference

USW members from across the United States will have that opportunity again this spring during the union’s 2023 Rapid Response, Legislative and Policy Conference from June 11 to June 14. The conference will include training sessions, panel discussions and a lobby day in which members will take their concerns directly to their elected officials.

Rapid Response is the USW’s nonpartisan grassroots education and communication program that provides every district, every local and every member in the United States with the opportunity to learn about and to take action on workplace-related issues in Washington, D.C., and in state capitols around the country.

“Every time we go to work, every time we organize a workplace, and every time we sit down to negotiate a contract, the laws that are coming out of Washington, D.C., and out of our state capitols come into play,” said International President Tom Conway. “That’s why Rapid Response is so important – it gives workers a chance to make their voices heard, and to magnify those voices in a way one person can’t do on their own.”

Retirement Security

One of the major initiatives of this year’s conference will be to mobilize members for the “No Cuts to Retirement Security” initiative, an effort to make sure that important safety net programs don’t suffer from funding cuts as a result of the debate in the U.S. House over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

Local unions around the country have passed resolutions this spring calling on Congress to quickly raise or eliminate the debt ceiling without any spending concessions that would harm Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid now and to protect these programs moving forward.

“Some members of Congress like to behave as if decisions on the debt ceiling and the debate over our federal budget are one and the same,” said International Vice President Roxanne Brown, who oversees the union’s legislative agenda. “They are not. The debt limit is about decisions our government has already made, and money that has already been spent. It’s about paying our bills on money that has already been allocated.”

Brown pointed out that, even when the time comes to make decisions on the budget, there is no reason to slash retirement security. Social Security provides crucial benefits to more than 65 million people, and Medicare provides health care to more than 63 million Americans, she said.

“There’s zero reason to make American working families and retirees suffer,” Brown said. “Workers have paid into these programs their entire lives, and the security they provide is a vital lifeline for millions of people.”

Capitol Hill Visits

The highlight of this year’s Rapid Response, Legislative and Policy Conference could be the lobby day that traditionally closes out the event. That’s when hundreds of USW members travel to the U.S. Capitol to speak to their elected officials about what matters most to them. The “no cuts” message will likely take center stage this time.

“Too often, elected officials are removed from the work that we do, and seeing us in the halls of Congress is a constant reminder that they are there to represent us,” Shaw said. “It’s critical and it’s pivotal for the labor movement to show up, because it’s an accountability measure for our elected officials.”

The lobby day is important, Shaw said, because it’s one way that union workers can counteract the big money that corporations and Wall Street pour into Washington in an effort to sway the legislative process.

“We may not have as much money as the powers that be,” she said. “But we can put boots on the ground. It’s not always the person that has the most money that wins, it’s who can capture the hearts and minds of people.”

Shaw said she is looking forward to talking to lawmakers about the need to preserve programs like Medicare, Social Security and Medicare.

“People work their entire lives paying into a system that is supposed to protect them,” she said. “We always need to do what we can to preserve these funds.”

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